A pivotal election for chairperson of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and three tribal council seats will be held exclusively by mail-in voting, with no in-person voting allowed.

Originally scheduled as part of a tribal general membership meeting on Sunday, Nov. 20, the tribal election features races for tribal chairperson and secretary, as well as three at-large tribal council seats.

Historically, tribal elections have occurred in-person at tribal headquarters off Black Brook Road in Aquinnah. The tribe switched to mail-in voting during the pandemic. A hybrid of mail-in and in-person voting was originally proposed for the Nov. 20 election.

But in an announcement posted on the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal website and provided to the Gazette, the tribe stated that the election would be mail-in only “due to logistical issues with in-person and mail-in voting.”

A slate of newcomer candidates, headed by the current program director at the Aquinnah cultural center, NaDaizja Bolling, is challenging a number of incumbent candidates in the election, including five-term tribal chairperson Cheryl Andrews-Maltais.

Ms. Bolling is running against Ms. Andrews-Maltais for the top administrative position in the tribe, which comes up for election every three years. Ms. Andrews-Maltais has served five terms as chairperson, although not all have been consecutive.

Ms. Bolling confirmed that the election would be mail-in only, with in-person voting not allowed. Ms. Andrews-Maltais did not respond to a request for comment.

Ms. Bolling said she disagreed with the tribe’s decision to make the election mail-in only, and supported a hybrid election that would include in-person and mail-in voting.

“While this last minute change will potentially disenfranchise many voters who planned to vote in person, please join us in rising to the challenge and making your voice heard,” Ms. Bolling wrote on her campaign website.

The decision to only allow mail-in voting was announced by tribal vice chairman Al Clark at a tribal council meeting on Oct. 19, approximately one month before the in-person election date of Nov. 20, according to Ms. Bolling. Mail-in ballots were sent to tribal members one day later, on Oct. 20, Ms. Bolling said.

Mail-in ballots have to be received by Nov. 18 to be counted, and must include a photocopy of tribal identification or tribal enrollment letter, according to the tribe’s announcement.

Tribal members who did not receive mail-in ballots were required to update their address by calling or emailing the tribe.

Ms. Bolling said in a text message that many tribal members did not receive ballots, and struggled to contact tribal headquarters to provide their updated addresses.

“Some people did not receive responses to calls/emails,” Ms. Bolling wrote. “Just a very stressful situation for a lot of folks.”

Mr. Clark further explained the decision to only offer mail-in voting in an announcement posted on the tribe’s website and obtained by the Gazette. Mr. Clark wrote that a proposed election ordinance change to hold hybrid elections was voted down in July, and that the tribal council took no action in the time since to change from a mail-in only system to a hybrid voting system.

He said that a change in August to allow hybrid general membership meetings did not mention voting.

“While there might have been an assumption that establishing hybrid general membership meetings going forward would include voting, that change was never incorporated,” Mr. Clark wrote. “Please note: there was no decision NOT to have in-person voting. The issue was that the [tribal council] never established the change that would allow it.”

Ms. Bolling said that the announcement was met with opposition by other tribal council members and the general membership.

“It’s a confusing process, and intentionally non-transparent,” Ms. Bolling said.

The tribe uses a third-party voting company based out of New Mexico to conduct elections, Ms. Bolling said. For ballots to count, they have to be mailed to New Mexico. The company will open the ballots Sunday, Nov. 20, on Island, with tribal chief Ryan Malonson and tribal medicine man Jason Baird present.

Along with Ms. Bolling, the slate of newcomer candidates running in the election includes Kayla Manning-Darcy, who is running for tribal secretary, as well as Linda Coombs and Camille Madison, who are running for at-large tribal council seats. Incumbent council member Kristina Hooks is also part of the slate.

Nefertiti Jette, an administrative assistant for the historic preservation arm of the Wampanoag Tribe, is running for secretary. Incumbent candidates for tribal council include Naomi Carney, Steven Craddock and Eleanor Hebert.

Leigh Vanderhoop is also running for one of the three available tribal council seats.

Ms. Bolling said she was proud of her team’s efforts to hold a transparent, informative and engaging campaign. She said she was optimistic, but would accept the election outcome, and encouraged tribal members to attend the tribe’s general membership meeting Sunday, Nov. 20, either by phone or in person at tribal headquarters.

“There are other ways that tribal members can make their voices heard,” Ms. Bolling said.